Key findings about religion and ‘abortion’ politics

Key findings about religion and ‘abortion’ politics October 23, 2020

The Republican Party has, once again, nominated a Neo-Confederate and Robber-Baron lapdog to reshape America from the Supreme Court. And the Republican Party has, once again, done this under the guise of religious opposition to legal abortion, because that’s what that is for.

And so, with the pretext of abortion back in the news, the Pew Research Center is once again publicizing the results of their frequent polling on religion and the politics of abortion. “8 key findings about Catholics and abortion” is based on data from their big 2019 survey, supplemented by some of the other polling they’ve done around the matter.

The first point is remarkable, but not for the reasons Pew seems to think it is:

More than half of U.S. Catholics (56%) said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while roughly four-in-ten (42%) said it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

Pew seems to think this is surprising — as in You probably thought most Catholics oppose legal abortion, but actually most Catholics support it.

That’s really not at all surprising for anyone who knows many American Catholics. But while it’s not surprising, it is impressive. And very revealing.

Because, think about it, the Catholic hierarchy is not reticent about this subject. Or ambiguous. Their diktats on abortion are emphatic, stern, and relentlessly omnipresent. In the past few years, I’ve attended three Catholic funerals, two weddings, a graduation and a Christmas midnight mass,* and every one of those occasions included a weirdly inappropriate non-sequitur riff on abortion politics, reinforcing the mandatory belief that all Catholics, in order to be Catholic, must politically and electorally support the full criminalization of abortion.

Clerical emphasis and enforcement of Catholic dogma opposing legal abortion is inescapable for those who worship and gather in Catholic congregations. Yet despite this — despite a lifetime of insistent indoctrination presented as a paramount matter of grave concern with eternal consequences — the majority of Catholic laypeople aren’t convinced. None of the arguments they’ve been presented have won them over. The catechizing and preaching and propaganda and invocations of spiritual authority have been wholly unpersuasive to the very people who’ve most often been subjected to it.

This is not because 56% of Catholic laypeople are obstinate, stiff-necked sinners. It’s because they are choosing to follow their own conscience rather than to accept the bearing of false witness against millions of their neighbors. It’s because most Catholic laypeople in America, having heard every argument and emotional appeal and dogmatic threat that the clergy can muster, have simply concluded that the clergy are wrong about this. Morally wrong. Factually wrong. Logically wrong. And also just generally kind of mean and cruel and clueless on the subject.

The clerical response to this is not to engage their view, but to dismiss it as illegitimate because that 56% includes many people who don’t come to Mass as often. Those people’s views don’t count, you see, because they’re all lapsed Catholics, or might as well be. Thus Pew’s second point:

Catholics who regularly attend Mass show higher levels of opposition to abortion. Two-thirds of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often (67%) said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while one-in-three (33%) said it should be legal. The ratio is almost exactly reversed for those who attend less frequently: Among Catholics who attend Mass less than weekly, roughly two-thirds said abortion should be legal in all or most cases (65%), while approximately one-in-three (32%) said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Clergy point to this as evidence that “real, true” Catholics unquestioningly support the clerical teaching on abortion. But that’s not what Pew’s data really reveals. What it shows, rather, is that the relentless reinforcement of conscience-offending dogma tends to deter attendance. And also that this perpetual repetition of mandatory dogma is so ineffective and takes such a shallow hold that it tends to wear off if not reapplied at least once a week, forever.

Defenders of clerical power would say this survey shows that the wisdom of the laity is unreliable, but what it really shows us is that the wisdom of the laity is resilient — that it is able to withstand even a prolonged effort to mislead. (It shows, as the ecclesiologist Abraham Lincoln put it, that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.)

And look again at that data on those who “attend Mass weekly or more often.” A full third of them still remain unconvinced by everything they’ve heard, week after week, day after day, for years.

That one-in-three factor mirrors the figures that Pew has found consistently over the decades among white evangelicals. Yes, even among white evangelicals who regularly attend — Wednesday nights and twice on Sundays.

Those white evangelical Christians have been subjected to the same constant stream of emphatic, mandatory teaching on the necessary and paramount doctrine of opposition to legal abortion. They’ve also had the weird experience of hearing this message awkwardly inserted into funeral and wedding sermons or mixed in with Christmas celebrations. And yet they also remain unconvinced.

That one-third share of white evangelicals varied slightly over the years — sometimes it was 30%, sometimes 36%, but always right around there. And every time Pew published its survey data, white evangelical clergy would protest that this was simply impossible. Not in my church, they would insist. Why, I’ve been a leader in my evangelical community for decades and I’ve never head anyone express such an opinion!

These men — and, yes, this is always from men — are telling on themselves. They’re telling us that they’re the kind of men who have made it clear that they cannot be trusted to respond decently to questions or candor from anyone who believes they are wrong. They’re telling us that they’re the kind of men who have made it clear that it’s just not worth the effort of engaging them on matters on which they’re wrong.

So they can’t be trusted to hear it, and they’ll probably never learn it, but yes, in their churches too, about a third of those regularly gathered do not believe abortion should be criminalized. Nor will they ever realize that, yes, in their churches too, the abortion rate is either equal to or slightly higher than that of the rest of the population.

Which brings us to the one piece of Pew’s 2019 survey that was actually surprising: White evangelical support for legal abortion has dipped below that decades-long pattern of 30-36%. Pew reports that one-in-five white evangelicals — 20% — believes that abortion should be legal in “all/most cases.”

Part of this is just noise created by Pew’s tweaking of the way it lumps together its categories, shifting from a “some or all cases” to a “most or all cases” figure. That’s reflected in their finding that more than a third — 35% — of white evangelicals do not think that Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

But I suspect it’s more than that. I suspect that the share of those who remain willing to identify themselves as white evangelicals is increasingly enthusiastic about criminalizing abortion because, increasingly, the only people still willing to identify themselves as white evangelicals are those willing to bear false witness against their neighbors and therefore to insist on criminalizing abortion.

Let’s consider a typical white evangelical congregation from, say, 1994, and let’s make the hypothetical arithmetic simple enough that my English-major brain won’t screw it up. If there were 100 people sitting in the pews of that church in 1994, 70 of them were nodding along and saying “amen” whenever their pastor emphasized the need to vote to “protect the unborn” from the millions of shameless hussies out there eager to murder them for the sake of mere convenience. But 30 others were sitting in those pews thinking, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That’s not what any of this means, and this seems cruel and willfully ignorant.” Or they’re thinking, “Dear Lord, my friend is sitting right behind him in the choir loft and this is unbearable because what he’s saying doesn’t describe her story at all.” Or “This doesn’t describe my story at all. It just isn’t true.”

Or maybe, less emphatically, they’re just thinking that what that pastor is saying seems simplistic in a way that vaguely troubles their conscience. Maybe there’s something about the aggressive flattery of the whole conceit that makes them suspicious.

They’ll be back in those same pews next week because, despite this discordant note, these are their people and this is their home. But something isn’t right with this place, and it’s nagging at them.

Fast forward 25 years. Decades of this toxic message have thinned the flock. Those 70 people in the pews nodding along, content to believe that millions of depraved women are out there glibly murdering the babies they don’t deserve, are still choosing to believe that, and so they’re all still there. But 10 of those others couldn’t take it anymore. They’ve left. And so now instead of 30% of that church opposing the criminalization of abortion, only 22% of it does. Eventually, this congregation of 90 will become a congregation of 60, all in 100-percent agreement that they’re the special people God has chosen to put millions of their callously evil baby-killing neighbors in prison for murder.

That’s especially likely now that the mask is slipping. The union of white evangelicalism with Trumpism is unveiling the way that this crusade based on false witness against our neighbors has always, always, always served as a proxy for white hegemony, for tax cuts for the rich, and deregulation. White evangelicals of good will are realizing that it’s nearly impossible for them to be on board with the agenda marketed to them as “protecting the unborn” without also being on board with an agenda that says money trumps people, corporations are their betters, black lives don’t matter, and black votes shouldn’t count. Whatever qualms these folks may retain about legal abortion, it will never offend their conscience as deeply as the cruel greed and tangible harm of the larger political agenda they’re beginning to realize the politics of abortion has always, always, always served.

This is revelation, apocalypse, the upending of a beastly system. The stars won’t fall from the heavens and the seas won’t turn to blood, but for a lot of people it’s going to feel like that.

* The priest who celebrated that Mass is now in prison. As is the monsignor who presided over my daughters’ confirmation.

Pointing that out is not a cheap shot unrelated to the topic of this post. It’s not a cheap shot because I didn’t even need to tell you why they’re both in prison, did I? And if you think that’s not directly and intrinsically related to the topic of this post, you need to think about that some more.


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